I’ve just returned from a three-day jaunt to London, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. Firstly, because there’s such a lot to see and experience (more of that later). But also because I’m more thankful than ever that I don’t live there. It’s not the proliferation of endless grey, drab, terraces. Nor the congested traffic, which I found much ruder and less tolerant than the Midlands’. Nor even the thronging mass of people (which I almost enjoy, in a “let’s see how quickly I can weave through this crowd” sort of way).
No – it’s slightly more esoteric than that. And I’m probably wrong about this, too. But I just couldn’t get past the feeling that there aren’t any Londoners in London. After the first time I visited, I used to joke that you can’t find any English people there – and strangely enough, nobody ever disagreed with me. So this time, I thought I’d try a bit harder to find some. And by and large, I think I failed. Nearly everyone, from waitresses, to ushers, to ticket-office clerks, to shopkeepers, is foreign. And a large proportion of the people walking on the streets are tourists.
London is a true metropolitan city – a melting pot of people from every nation within travelling distance. A gallimaufry of humanity, culture and customs. It’s a place that everyone can (and does) arrive and settle down in. But if it’s a place that everyone can belong to – does anyone really belong? Surely there needs to be some sort of exclusivity for a true sense of belonging to be bred? If anyone in the world can (and does) turn up and stay for six to twelve months, is it right that they seem to have as much claim to being a Londoner as the born and bred native?
The other reason I don’t think I could put up with living there is that strong sensation that the entire place is a tourist attraction. It’s like that scene in Entrapment, where Catherine Zeta-Jones dodges the lasers. Except that it’s camera lines of sight. After a while, I gave up the abrupt stopping and bopping and weaving and ducking, and probably ended up in a score of holiday snaps. Thank heavens for digital photos and the Delete button. But even that is just one of the symptoms. So many of the shops, the buildings, the businesses, are catering purely to the visitors. If you applied a filter that blacked out from view all those elements of London which predominantly cater to those that don’t live there, it would be a much darker place.
Of course, I’m not English, I don’t live in London, and I am a tourist. And so I’m thoroughly unqualified to say these horrible things about the city. But I find that I’m not unhappy about getting back to my little corner of the Midlands, where there aren’t any tourists at all, and there isn’t any traffic to speak of, and although I don’t really feel that I belong, it feels more natural than it would if I did.